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Grade inflation

pancakes with maple syrup

Last month, a USDA rule change went into effect with relatively little fanfare. The agency adopted rules that change how maple syrup is graded in the United States. Part of the reason for the change was to bring the US in line with international standards, but consumer preferences also played a significant role.

Consumers have been gravitating toward dark syrup, formerly known as Grade B, which connotated that it was inferior to Grade A. "We've seen a real interest in the dark, strongly flavored syrups using a system that downgraded that by calling it Grade B, just didn't make sense anymore," said Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. Vermont adopted the new grading system a year before the USDA made it mandatory for all states.

Canada, which is the world's top producer of maple syrup, is still holding onto it's number 1 and 2 grading system. However, change is on the horizon there as well. The provinces of Quebec and Ontario are currently working through the process of changing to the international system, and Gordon believes "they're looking at probably a two year phase in for the new grades."

We found a link to a handy infographic that explains the new system. All retail grade maple syrup is now Grade A, but with descriptors for variations in color and strength. For example, what was formerly Grade A Light Amber is now Grade A Golden Color, Delicate Taste. The maple syrup formerly known as Grade B is now called Grade A Very Dark Color, Strong Taste. It seems a little fussy to me, but perhaps this will clear up any confusion over the quality of maple syrup variations. 

Photo of American style pancakes with bacon & maple syrup from Eat Like a Girl by Niamh Shields

Sunset looks for a new home

Sunset magazine

Time, Inc., the corporate parent of Sunset magazine, announced that it has sold Sunset's 7-acre campus, located in Menlo Park, California. The campus contained several gardens and midcentury ranch-style buildings designed by Cliff May, considered the father of the California ranch home. Sunset magazine's rich history traces all the way to 1898 with a sales publication developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which wanted to lure people to the West.

In the 1950s, the magazine moved to its current location and became a chronicle of California living from the kitchen to the garden and beyond. Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine, reminisced about the magazine's impact: "When I moved to Berkeley in 1973, I had all these articles I had been pulling out of Sunset," she said. "I had one that told you how to build your own bread oven in your backyard. They were so ahead of the curve. They made California seem like the most romantic place on earth."

Time Inc. will continue to publish Sunset and has started a search for a new home for the magazine's kitchen, gardens, and offices. The magazine will stay in its current location through 2015. This move is one of many that Time Inc. has undertaken during its spinoff from Time Warner. Earlier this year, Time sold the Alabama property that housed magazines like Southern Living and Cooking Light, but it leased back some of the space, so those magazines didn't have to move.

Some former Sunset staffers worry that the move will negatively impact the magazine. "It will be hard for Sunset to survive as it represents itself now . . . as a working voice of the West, without the tools for testing and experimenting," says Jerry Anne Di Vecchio, who worked at Sunset for over 40 years.

Worrying news for chocolate lovers

Salted choclate caramel tarts

Chocolate lovers, brace yourselves. The world's chocolate supply can't keep up with demand, according to several chocolate producers including Mars, Inc. and Barry Callebaut. This "chocolate deficit" - in which consumers eat more chocolate than is produced in a year - is growing and shows no sign of abating.

The reasons for the deficit are two-fold. First, bad weather and a fungal disease are affecting chocolate crops, especially in West Africa, which produces more than 70 percent of the world's cocoa. The International Cocoa Organization estimates the fungal disease has caused the loss of 30 to 40 percent of global coca production. 

The second reason is that we just love chocolate too much. There is an almost insatiable demand for chocolate products, especially dark chocolate, which uses much more cocoa (the average chocolate bar contains about 10 percent cocoa, while dark chocolate bars can reach 70 percent cocoa by volume). Demand outstripped supply by 70,000 metric tons in the last year, and shows no signs of slowing down.

So what's being done to alleviate this crisis? One avnue is increased innovation in cocoa production. One research group in Central Africa "is developing trees that can produce up to seven times the amount of beans traditional cocoa trees can." Whether this trade-off in production quantity will affect the quality and flavor of the product is unknown, but judging by other crops like supermarket tomatoes, the prognosis is not great.

Unless a solution is found to dramatically (and quickly) increase cocoa production, consumers should be prepared to continue to pay more. Chocolate prices have been climbing steadily since 2012 and nothing suggests a departure from this trend.

Photo of Salted chocolate & caramel tarts from Delicious Magazine (Aus)

Observer Food Monthly announces award winners

Persiana, Nigella Lawson, & Jack Monroe

Awards season in the U.S. won't happen for several months, but in the U.K. there's food award action now, as indexed magazine Observer Food Monthly announces its 2014 award winners. While much of the action focuses on restaurants and retailers, there are some awards that EYB members outside of the U.K. may find interesting.

Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond by Sabrina Ghayour won the award for best cookbook. Ghayour's take "on Middle Eastern cooking mixes it up a bit and includes turmeric and cumin roast potatoes and pomegranate-glazed pork as well as pistachio and lemon shortbread." The best food blog award goes to Jack Monroe, the blogger, cookbook writer, and austerity activist who "has defeated all-comers, from Edwina Currie to internet trolls, on her way to success."

If you're in the market for a new brownie recipe, you might want to try out the winner for best reader's recipe: smokin' pig licker brownies by Gavan Knox (yes, they contain bacon). Read more about the 2014 award winners, including an interview with Nigella Lawson, OFM's food personality of the year. 

Condé Nast shakes things up

Epicurious & Bon Appetit

Publishing powerhouse Condé Nast announced yesterday that it is merging the sales and editorial staff of Epicurious with that of Bon Appétit magazine. According to the press release, the move will combine "Bon Appétit's authority in food content and lifestyle with Epicurious' digital leadership and recipe database." The move comes as part of a larger reshuffling within the organization.

As part of the change, Epicurious chief Carolyn Kremins is out, and Adam Rapoport, currently editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, will oversee both editorial teams. Nilou Motamed will remain editor-in-chief of Epicurious but will report to Rapoport. There has been no word on how much of the editorial teams will remain in place, but according to The New York Post, about one-third of the Epicurious sales force will be let go.

Condé Nast assures us that "each brand will continue to have its distinct voice and positioning," but they expect the consolidation will drive up the combined entities' ranking on ComScore (an internet ranking service) to #3. Individually Epicurious ranks #6 on ComScore while Bon Appétit comes in at #8. Although it's not clear what, if any, changes users can expect to see, the press release notes that the merger will allow "cross-promotion of content, co-branded partnerships, programs, events and sponsorships, and close collaboration of two talented teams."

What do you think of this merger?

The shape of things to come?

Flare saucepan

What happens when a rocket scientist applies his skills to cookware? You get a new saucepan that is up 40% more efficient than a conventional pan. The Flare cookware series, developed by Lakeland in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Povey of Oxford University, uses channels in the sides of the pan that allow more heat to enter the pan than a conventional, smooth-sided pan.

An avid mountaineer, Dr. Povey turned his talents to cookware design after struggling to boil water at altitude. He realized that a lot of energy is spent just heating the pan. "There's nothing wrong with (a usual saucepan), but it loses a lot of heat, which means it has less energy efficiency, which means it wastes more heat, energy, and gas," said Dr. Povey, who applied aerodynamic and heat transfer science "used in rocket and jet engines to create a shape of a pan that is more energy efficient."

The cast aluminum pan works most efficiently on gas cooktops, although it can be used on electric, ceramic and halogan hobs (but presumably not induction hobs).  As is the norm with innovation, these pans come at a premium price: the 20cm (8") saucepan clocks in at £49.99 ($86 USD; $91 AUD). 

What do you think of the new design - is it here to stay, or is it just a flash in the pan?

Are cupcakes dead?


"The cupcake is dead." So says the tweet from Russ Parsons, food writer with the L.A. Times, with a link to an article that announces five foods that "could be the next cupcake." The post was in response to the news that Crumbs, a publicly-traded chain of cupcake shops, was closing all of its stores.  Other tweets echo the sentiment: "RIP cupcakes" laments Bread & Butter, and The Guardian US wondered if "the cupcake economy is crumbling." For those who hadn't heard of Crumbs, it was a bakeshop that helped create the cupcake craze at the beginning of the 2000s and grew to be one of the largest cupcake chains in the U.S. It went public three years ago, but with the cupcake craze waning, and with a lot more competition entering the fray, the company endured losses in each of the past three years. The death knell came on July 1, when the Nasdaq stock market suspended trading of its shares.

But all of the laments aside, does this really mean the end of cupcake shops? It does seem like the refrain of "cupcakes are dead" has gone on before. Back in 2011, a writer for NPR claimed that cupcakes were dead. (She thought pie would be the next cupcake.) Other cupcake shops seem to be holding on, at least for now. Some reports theorize that the reasons Crumbs went under were more or less the same reasons other businesses fail: expanding too fast and taking on too much debt, not because the cupcake trend has breathed its last breath.

Even if cupcakes couldn't support a publicly-traded national company doesn't mean the snack-size cakes are in danger of disappearing from bakeries. Portable cakes are just too convenient to go away. Plus, the last Crumbs cupcake is up to $250 on eBay - not too shabby for being dead.

Do you believe the cupcake trend is played out? What do you think will be "the next cupcake?"

Cheese lovers breathe a sigh of relief

Cheese aging

News feeds across the U.S. began buzzing when word came out that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was moving to ban the aging of cheese on wooden boards. Wood has been the medium of choice for cheese aging for centuries, as the wood both helps to absorb excess moisture and hosts beneficial bacteria that create the surface mold essential to the flavor of many cheeses from Camembert to Raclette.

Cheese lovers, as well as artisanal cheese makers, were incensed by this news and bombarded the FDA with protests, prompting the FDA to issue a clarification. They state that they do not intend to ban wooden boards outright, but rather the agency will "engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving," according to the Forbes  article. If the FDA would move to ban aging on wood, it would affect not only domestic cheese products, but also imports from the EU and other countries.

Although banning wooden boards may sound like government bureaucracy at its worst, the FDA did not initiate any action against cheese makers. The statement regarding the use of wooden boards was made in response to a request for clarification from New York state regulators. According to the Washington Post article linked above, the brouhaha "dates to a 2012 FDA inspection of a small cheesemaker in upstate New York, during which was found the presence of listeria monocytogenes, a potentially harmful bacteria, on one of the boards used to age the company's Gouda-style cheese. After inspectors found evidence of listeria again in 2013, the FDA ordered the company to halt its sales until it developed a listeria-control program." Listeria can grow in the cold temperatures of a refrigerator, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that "approximately 1600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis [caused by the listeria bacteria] occur annually in the United States."

This isn't the first time the FDA has rankled the artisan cheese community. The agency "struck a nerve last year when it began blocking imports of Mimolette, a Gouda-like cheese from France with a small but fervent following in the United States." An inspection of Mimolette found an unacceptable level of mites that live on the rinds of the cheese, and while the FDA did not issue an outright ban, Mimolette imports have all but stopped.

Cheese aficionados hope that the FDA can work with the cheese industry to promulgate rules that allow consumers to enjoy aged cheese without compromising the quality of the product.

Photo courtesy The Washington Post

2014 James Beard Foundation book award winners announced

JBF award winners

The James Beard Foundation announced the 2014 book award winners. Heston Blumenthal's Historic Heston, one of the tomes that didn't even make the IACP nominee list, won both its category (Cooking from a Professional Point of View) and Cookbook of the Year. Other books that didn't make the IACP nominee list but won their respective categories were Every Grain of Rice by Fuschia Dunlop (International), Smoke: New Firewood Cooking (General Cooking) and A Work in Progress by René Redzepi (Photography).

One cookbook made a sweep of both IACP and JBF awards: The Art of French Pastry, in the Baking and Dessert category. Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy was nominated in both lists but won only the James Beard Foundation award.

In addition to the cookbook awards, the James Beard Foundation ushered Diana Kennedy into its Cookbook Hall of Fame. You can view the complete 2014 list of JBF nominees and winners here. As always, your thoughts on the selections are welcomed.

Get a taste of a top 50 restaurant at home

Best 50 Restaurants

The world's 50 best restaurants for 2014 were recently announced. The list, sponsored by global food and equipment purveyors, is a veritable 'who's who' of world chefs, although it is tilted toward the U.S. and Europe. Notably absent from the list are women (only two restaurants have women at the helm, and in both cases the women share top billing).

Topping the list is Noma, located in Copenhagen, Denmark and helmed by René Redzepi. Diners "are introduced to Noma's food via its inimitable series of 'snacks' - 10 servings that include the likes of sea urchin toast and caramelised milk and cod liver." The ambitious and innovative menu can be a shock to diners, but the dishes allegedly "make you feel glad to be alive."

Second place went to last year's winner, El Celler de Can Roca, which, despite its highbrow status, remains "at heart a local family-owned restaurant rooted in the fiercely independent state of Catalonia." Guests are treated to a 14-course culinary experience that involves Catalan ingredients cooked perfectly and frequently enhanced by cutting edge techniques. Some dishes "are elaborate, such as a salad of sea anemone, razor-clam, cucumber and seaweed in escabèche, others are more straightforward; but each is beautifully balanced."

At third place for the second year in a row is Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. The number four spot goes to Eleven Madison Park in New York, followed by Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Dinner may be The Fat Duck's younger relative, but Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts has taken the restaurant to dazzling heights. Rounding out the top ten are Mugaritz in San Sebastián, Spain; D.O.M. in Sáo Paulo, Brazil; Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain; Alinea in Chicago, USA; and The Ledbury in London, UK.

Most of us aren't going to be able to dine at any of these stellar restaurants, but lucky for us, nine of the top 10 (and many more in the top 50) have given us a glimpse into what it might be like to dine there, or at least provide us an inkling of the chefs' inspiration, through their cookbooks. René Redzepi of Noma recently released the acclaimed A Work in Progress, and previously published Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The number two restaurant's driving force, Joan Roca, co-authored Sous-vide Cuisine and presumably was a major impetus behind El Celler de Can Roca. Massimo Bottura, of the number three Osteria Francescana, has penned Balsamic Vinegar and PRO. Attraverso traditione e innovazione.

Moving down the list, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park co-wrote the restaurant's cookbook and I Love New York (recently nominated for several awards). Heston Blumenthal has graced us with several cookbooks, and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz not only provides us with a cookbook named for the restaurant, but has penned other books as well. D.O.M. head Alex Atala wrote a book that celebrates the Brazilian ingredients that inspire his cooking. Juan Mari Arzak gives us Arzak, recetas in addition to other cookbooks, and Grant Achatz provides us with inspiration through Alinea.

Which restaurant/chef cookbook most inspires you, and which of the top 50 restaurants would you most like to visit?

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!